After a wild finish to the 2021-22 NBA season, the Play-In Tournament matchups are officially set and play will begin tonight. Some young, emerging teams are ready to make their mark in this single-game showcase, while other teams are still simply trying to find their place. The 2022 Play-In Tournament will feature lots of superstar players and rising stars, setting the stage for some really fun Basketball this week. Here's a look at the East and West matchups:
7 v 8 Matchup: (7) Brooklyn Nets vs. (8) Cleveland Cavaliers
Broadcast Info: Tuesday, 4/12 on TNT (7 pm ET)
9 v 10 Matchup: (9) Atlanta Hawks vs. (10) Charlotte Hornets
Broadcast Info: Wednesday, 4/13 on ESPN (7 pm ET)
7 v 8 Matchup: (7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (8) Los Angeles Clippers
Broadcast Info: Tuesday, 4/12 on TNT (9:30 pm ET)
9 v 10 Matchup: (9) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (10) San Antonio Spurs
Broadcast Info: Wednesday, 4/13 on ESPN (9:30 pm ET)
Western Conference Preview and Predictions
(10) San Antonio Spurs @ (9) New Orleans Pelicans - Single Elimination
Pelicans (36-46): After an up and down season for New Orleans, the Pelicans were one of the last teams to clinch a Play-In spot. Pelicans superstar Zion Williamson was originally scheduled to miss the first month of the season due to a fracture he suffered in his right foot. However, Zion's recovery time has been pushed back multiple times, to the point where he has not and now will not play at all this season. Amid the rumors that Zion was not in contact with the team, New Orleans struggled to find consistency under new head coach Willie Green. The Pels seemed to be headed towards another lottery pick and potentially moving Zion in the offseason. At the trade deadline, however, the Pelicans dealt for longtime Trail Blazers star CJ McCollum and went on to finish the season strong. McCollum has been as advertised for the Pelicans and has added another scoring threat alongside Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas. This is the Pelicans' first postseason appearance since 2019.
Spurs (34-48): It's been well documented by now these are not the prototypical Gregg Popovich Spurs, the kind of team we've known them to be over the years. For them to even be in the Play-In tournament with a measly 34 wins makes the above a real understatement. But this is progress for the rebuilding Spurs, as they have a chance to secure a playoff spot after missing out on the postseason each of the past two seasons. San Antonio was the last team to clinch a Play-In berth, led to this point by rising star Point Guard Dejounte Murray. He's made a good case for himself as the NBA's Most Improved Player, averaging 21.2 PPG, 9.2 APG, 8.3 RPG while shooting 46.2% from the field. Murray was the do it all player for the Spurs and will need to have one of his best efforts to advance past the Play-In.
Analysis: This is one of the weaker matchups in this year's Play-In tournament, but both of these teams have bounced back nicely since the earlier stages of the season. I think it's important to look at how well both teams have played over their last 10 or so games, rather than assessing their entire 82 game schedule. Both teams finished 6-4 down the stretch, but the Spurs have turned up the defensive intensity, as they were the #2 ranked defensive team to go along with their #14 offense in the last 10 games. On paper, the Pelicans have more scoring options on the court than the Spurs, but I believe Pop and his crew will have their guys ready. In what should be a coin flip of a game, I'll take a stab at the Spurs pulling off the upset in a close matchup. They'd then face the loser of the Timberwolves-Clippers game.
Prediction: Spurs win 115-111
(8) Los Angeles Clippers @ (7) Minnesota Timberwolves - Double Elimination
Timberwolves (46-36): After many extremely disappointing seasons, the Timberwolves have seemingly turned things around this year. Led by superstar Center Karl-Anthony Towns, rising star Anthony Edwards and guard D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota was one of the more fun and exciting NBA teams to watch this season. The veteran presence provided by Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley have given this young core both a huge boost and a swagger that has clearly rubbed off on them. First-year Head Coach Chris Finch deserves a lot of credit for the team's turnaround, which has them primed to be dangerous for the foreseeable future.
Clippers (42-40): Los Angeles (no, not the Lakers) was overlooked heading into the season with superstar Kawhi Leonard rehabbing his ACL injury and his co-star Paul George being limited to only 31 games due to injuries of his own. Los Angeles landed Norman Powell at the trade deadline, but the injury bug had already caught up to him as well. However, despite everything stacked against them, this scrappy group of veterans managed to fight their way through the season, beating teams such as Minnesota (3 times), Golden State, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas and Miami. Head Coach Ty Lue deserves a lot of praise for the way he has navigated this team through stormy waters all season to get them to this point.
Analysis: I picked Minnesota to make the playoffs at the beginning of the season, but I'm going to have to sell my stock and put my chips in on LA right now. The Clippers are getting hot at the right time and I love the way LA played throughout the season without Kawhi, PG-13 and Powell. I have to applaud Ty Lue again for coaching this team into the Play-In Tournament. This team has a lot of fight and an edge in both experience and coaching. With PG-13 conditioned and ready to play, LA lives to see another day and earns a first round matchup against Memphis, while Minnesota gets another crack against San Antonio.
Prediction: Clippers win 117-108
(10) San Antonio Spurs @ (7) Minnesota Timberwolves - 8th Seed Final
Analysis: Both teams have really exciting futures and the kind of young talent to help them make some serious noise in the Western Conference in the near future. However, at the moment, I think Minnesota is more equipped to win this game outright. Karl-Anthony Towns is the best player on the court for this matchup and has already terrorized this San Antonio squad this season, including a 60 point performance only a month ago. While the Spurs will put up a good fight, I think Minnesota has enough offensive prowess to get past a good defensive Spurs team. Minnesota will meet the unstoppable Phoenix Suns in the 1st round.
Prediction: Timberwolves win 128-118
Eastern Conference Preview and Predictions
(10) Charlotte Hornets @ (9) Atlanta Hawks - Single Elimination
Hawks (43-39): A year removed from making an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks will start this season's playoff run in the Play-In Tournament. Atlanta has been plagued with inconsistency throughout the year, yet has managed to close out the season in a position to still make the postseason. John Collins hasn't played since March 11 and may not be ready to rev things up in time if the Hawks make it past the Play-In. Nonetheless, the team is still led by dangerous superstar Point Guard Trae Young, who had a historic season that saw him finish as the NBA's leader in points and assists (he's only the second player in league history to do so). Young will have to dig deep into his bag and pull off an incredible performance if the Hawks want to advance far into the playoffs again.
Hornets (43-39): Much like Atlanta, the Hornets have a young and exciting team, led by rising star LaMelo Ball. Charlotte just squeezed into the Play-In Tournament down the stretch with strong play from Miles Bridges, who led the team in scoring, and veteran guard Terry Rozier. Similar to the Hawks' season, Charlotte struggled to find consistency, but are able to score in bunches and at will on any given night. This is the first time since 2016 that the Hornets are in a playoff position and are hoping that their young, explosive scoring team led by Head Coach James Borrego can get them deeper into the postseason.
Analysis: Neither of these teams play a whole lot of defense, but they can each score willingly on any given night due to their core of explosive and dynamic playmakers. Charlotte plays at a high pace, ranking 5th in the league, while the Hawks are ranked 19th and tend to play a bit slower. However, if this game does turn into a track meet, the Hawks shouldn't have too much trouble keeping up. In one of the most exciting games on the schedule, I believe the winner of this one will be whoever is first to reach 120. I'll lean towards the Hawks in this spot, as they have their recent playoff experience to lean on and Trae Young is built for these types of games (as he showed last year). It's also interesting to note that Atlanta is 27-14 at home this season, meaning nearly 2/3 of their wins have come on their home court.
Prediction: Hawks win 124-120
(8) Cleveland Cavaliers @ (7) Brooklyn Nets - Double Elimination
Nets (44-38): No one could have possibly expected Brooklyn to be taking part in the Play-In Tournament at the beginning of the season. Way back when, the Nets were one of the favorites to win the NBA Title with their trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Things took a turn when Irving was deemed ineligible to play in the team's home games due to his vaccination status. Durant then got hurt in the middle of the season and Harden (once again!) forced his way out of town, landing in Philadelphia. Suddenly, though, the Nets have gotten themselves relatively healthy again with KD back in the lineup, Kyrie becoming eligible to play full-time and Seth Curry and Goran Dragic both being cleared to play in this game. While it remains a mystery whether or not Ben Simmons participates at all in the playoffs, the duo of KD and Kyrie is healthy and looking scary heading into this Play-In matchup.
Cavaliers (44-38): Like the Nets, no one expected Cleveland to be taking part in the Play-In Tournament earlier this season, either...but for different reasons. The Cavaliers have always had a dark cloud hanging over their heads, especially every time LeBron James leaves them, as they can never seem to find success without him. However, things changed this year as Cleveland started off the season strong, led by rising star Point Guard Darius Garland, potential Rookie of the Year Evan Mobley and "Mr. Double-Double" Jarrett Allen. Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff deserves his flowers for how he's coached this young team to 44 wins and surpassed expectations. However, injuries have derailed the Cavs during the second half of the season, with Allen missing from the lineup and Mobley being limited at times.
Analysis: These are very much two teams headed in opposite directions at the moment, as Brooklyn is healthy again while Cleveland can't seem to shake off the injury bug. If everyone was healthy for the Cavaliers in this game, I honestly believe there'd be a good chance for them to pull off the upset. Garland, Allen and Mobley were 26-14 together and they added a consistent 20 point scorer in Caris LeVert at the trade deadline. However, Allen is once again out for this game and Mobley just returned 3 days ago. I have concerns about how the Nets' defense will hold up the rest of the way, but I think the duo of KD and Kyrie makes quick work of the Cavs, setting up an exciting first round rematch with the red-hot Boston Celtics.
Prediction: Nets win 121-108
(9) Atlanta Hawks @ (8) Cleveland Cavaliers - 8th Seed Final
Analysis: This game will really hinge on the status of Jarrett Allen -- that's how vitally important he is to the Cavaliers. The team hasn't provided a timetable for his return, however, so I'm under the impression he isn't available for this potential matchup, either. Atlanta's consistency struggles should be noted here, though, as they have an abysmal 16-25 road record and have sometimes looked absent in games directly following big wins all season. The Cavaliers' defense could stifle the Hawks' offensive prowess, especially when they're playing at home. But, because the Hawks have been playing better than the Cavs over the last 10 games both offensively and defensively, I think Trae Young and the Hawks pull this off in a tight matchup, setting up a fun 1st round against the East's top seed: the Miami Heat.
Prediction: Hawks win 114-107